To trade or not to trade, that is the question. When you ask that question of pretty much any player on the Leafs, the answer is pretty simple, “Sell baby, sell!” With Leo Komarov, it’s a little more complex than that, and over the next couple of days we’ll be taking a look at whether Uncle Leo should stay or if he should go.
I’ve been given the luxury of going first and making the correct argument, the one that says that Leo Komarov should be traded, assuming there’s the interest we suspect there to be.
Let me first acknowledge a few things on why I get the appeal for keeping Komarov. He’s in the middle of a breakout offensive season (we’ll get back this later), he’s found himself at home filling the role that Babcock has previously filled with players like Franzen, Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Abdelkader, Cleary, etc (we’ll address that later too). He’s a fan favourite, he’s a favourite of his teammates, and the fact that he’s multilingual could serve the Leafs well as they bring up Russian, Finnish, and Swedish prospects. And the contract – the contract is the double-edged sword that helps make him attractive to other teams, but also makes him appealing to keep around.
The other thing that’s important to acknowledge so this argument doesn’t come off as “sell for the sake of selling” is, for all the reasons above, you have to absolutely be in love with the return for Leo Komarov. In the past, I’ve floated the idea of a late first for Komarov, and on Tuesday Damien Cox floated the same idea, so that’s roughly what I’m thinking is what it takes to get it done.
There might be slight variations on that – the Leafs might take back a contract that’s expiring, or they have to toss in a third to get the first, but that’s mainly what I’m going for with the Komarov idea, although realistically a second round pick and a solid prospect isn’t far off the mark of what works either. Remember Daniel Winnik got a second and fourth (and Zack Sill) and Winnik while having a good season, wasn’t haven’t the year that Komarov is having.
Funny I should mention Daniel Winnik because the situations are similar. Winnik, a 29-year-old winger, put up 25 points in 58 games for the Leafs, had a 1.8 CF% Rel despite only having 41.8% of his starts in the offensive zone. He was on an expiring contract, which is different than Komarov, but he was seen as a cheap addition to a playoff-bound team.
This year the 29-year-old winger (turns 29 Saturday), Leo Komarov, has put up 30 points in 43 games, including a team-leading 16 goals. He has a 52.8 CF% or 2.5 CF% Rel, but has been starting in the offensive zone the majority of the time. He’s a got another year on his deal, but at these numbers $2.95M seems like a bargain and he’d be a great addition to a playoff-bound team or one that wants to make a hockey deal to help their team over the next couple of years.
The reason I compare the two players is that Daniel Winnik has taken a bit of a step back this year, and without significant offensive zone starts, or top line minutes is likely where Komarov would produce as well. Last year the Leafs had the luxury to sell Winnik when his value was at his highest, this year is likely the same situation for Leo, who plays an aggressive style that limited him to 62 last season.
As Komarov ages, it seems reasonable to expect more injuries and less production. This is a lightning in a bottle season, and the Leafs would be crazy not to cash in on it, especially considering the production of Babcock’s players who served in similar roles to Komarov when they reached their 30s.
The fact of the matter is, that while Komarov is a likeable face on the role he’s filling, it’s there for the grabbing of any of the Leafs or Marlies forwards who have demonstrated the willingness to be a little pesty or crash the net.
In many ways Brendan Leipsic is the heir apparent to the Komarov pest role, and given his success on the Marlies this season, he could be ready to challenge for it soon. Nikita Soshnikov is another net crasher, who may lack the pestiness, but makes it up for it with being more offensively creative.
Current Leafs like Shawn Matthias, Daniel Winnik certainly could step into a role similar to Komarov’s, and while there’s no guarantee that none of these players execute the role as well, it’s unlikely that the drop off would be significant. Even players like Josh Leivo or Peter Holland could be viable options.
While none of this may seem to be true right now, consider the rate at which Komarov has been scoring.
At even strength, the production for Komarov isn’t horribly out of line with other players, and if Winnik or Matthias see an increased amount of time with Bozak or Kadri, it seems reasonable they’d close the gap. Not to mention that Brad Boyes remains an untapped resource for increased offense.
That really brings us to the fact that Leo is a likeable guy to fans, teammates, and pretty much anyone who isn’t playing against him. It may seem naïve to consider this, but the fact is Komarov is a very marketable player to a fan base that will be settling in for a couple more years of hardship. Equally true is for a locker room full of players working through that hardship, it’s nice to have a guy that makes showing up to work a little easier for you. That being said, what did having nice guys like Andrew Ference and Ryan Smyth do to aid the Oilers rebuild?
Komarov is an ideal kind of person to have in your locker room, but it’s not as if he’s the only option that exists as a veteran presence, as Tom Hunter alluded to earlier today. Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Daniel Winnik, Matt Hunwick are all players under contract beyond this year who fill that veteran presence role. Shawn Matthias, Rich Clune, Brad Boyes, and Roman Polak are all evidence that veteran presence can be imported with little effort. There’s also the fact that players like Kadri, Rielly, and Gardiner are graduating to that veteran status and if anything the Leafs are in greater need of an injection of youth into the lineup rather than locker room leadership.
What it comes down to largely is the market for Leo Komarov. Over a third of the league will be in a position at the trade deadline where they can afford to add Komarov without sending out salary. At the deadline, Komarov will likely be over 20 goals, and pushing 40 points, and with his ability to line up at any forward position and on any line he should have universal appeal. His two remaining years on his contract might be a deterrent for teams strictly looking for rentals, and those not sure they want to chance what he’ll be long term, but in all likelihood, his contract and term open him up to being an attractive option for bubble teams looking to make a push this year, but won’t have to deal with having nothing to show for their gamble if it doesn’t pay off.
Moving Komarov shouldn’t be done by aggressively shopping him and tossing him out onto the open market, but since Leo is player with plenty of attributes that are particularly valued at playoff time, there are bound to be a few inquiries, there’s nothing wrong with turning those inquiries into a bidding war. There is little doubt that through that process an offer for Komarov will be made that will be significantly greater than one that would come up in the offseason, or at future trade deadlines.
Looking at the comparable deals from last season, Glencross, Winnik, and Cole all netted a second and additional assets on rental deals. The rental aspect may have made them more attractive to their suitors, but most of their season point totals are around where Komarov is now for scoring.
Perron was the only player dealt with some term left last year, and he is more expensive than Komarov, doesn’t have as good offensive numbers, but benefitted from being younger. It’s interesting that landed a first round pick well in advance of the trade deadline.
What it really comes down to for me is the battle between emotion vs. logic.
Emotion tells us that the Leafs desperately need Komarov’s positive presence around the team. It tells us that we like him a lot, he’s funny, he reminds us of Darcy Tucker, he’s sold some jerseys in a year where the Leafs don’t have a marquee name to put on the back.
Logic is split. Logic says that Leafs are short on good players and Komarov is proving that he is one. Logic also shows that Komarov is 30 next season, injuries will become a factor, his next contract is unlikely to be as friendly as this one, and he’s not likely to be a key cog in the Leafs future. There is also the question of who do you want in the Leafs top six next season, and if Komarov isn’t there, is he still adding value?
Focusing on the short term there is value in Komarov being a Leaf, but the reality is this team should not be making short-term considerations. That’s why you need to explore trading him now.